As a conductor whose decades-long career includes performances with legends like Mikhail Baryshnikov and The Three Tenors, George Daugherty has experienced some thunderous ovations.
But none compare to those sparked by a wascally wabbit named Bugs Bunny, the star of his three extensively toured Looney Tunes extravaganzas that marry live symphonic music — based on the compositions of Wagner, Rossini, Liszt, Smetana, Johahnn Strauss II and many others — with classic cartoons that are projected overhead. The latest, “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony — 30th Anniversary Edition,” comes to Orchestra Hall for two concerts Jan. 18 (at 3 and 7:30 p.m.).
“When Bugs Bunny’s image hits the screen the first time, it blows the roof off the concert hall,” Daugherty says. “It’s like the audience suddenly got surprised by The Beatles, Pavarotti, Paganini and Beethoven walking out on stage unexpectedly. It is the most deafening ovation I have ever heard in my life.”
Co-created by David Ka Lik Wong, the new iteration of symphonic Bugs marks the upcoming 80th anniversary of its iconic namesake and includes such well-known favorites as “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957), “Corny Concerto” (1943), “Long-Haired Hare” (1949) and “Rabbit of Seville” (1950). There’s new repertoire, including a few 3-D animated shorts. Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner, Michigan J. Frog and Giovanni Jones will make appearances, too.
Daugherty was working as the music director for Ballet Chicago in the late 1980s when he came up with the idea for what would be his first hit: “Bugs Bunny on Broadway.” Part of selling Warner Bros. on the concept included a demo session that was done at Chicago’s legendary (and now long-shuttered) Universal Recording studio on the city’s Near North Side. “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” and “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II” followed, playing to millions of people at major venues around the world.
In performing the meticulously arranged soundtracks — by Warner Bros. musical wizards Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn, both accomplished multi-instrumentalists — for 16 classic Looney Tunes cartoons, Daugherty and his highly skilled musicians make it look easy. But don’t let that fool you.
“The sound effects and dialogue are coming from the original cartoon, but the music is live, so we have to be in sync within a 24th of a second,” Daughtery says. “All three are absolutely, inextricably tied together, and there is no forgiveness. So when the Coyote gets banged on the head by a boulder the Road Runner has just pushed off the top of a mountain, there is a simultaneous musical sound, and they have to be locked together.”
Timing, in short, is everything.
“And it’s why these cartoons are so brilliant,” Daugherty adds. “The timing of the original directors and composers was perfect and impeccable.”
Hitting sound effects cues, though, is only one of several challenges for Daughtery and his orchestras. Here’s another: No breaks. Back in the day, Warner Bros. studio musicians could focus on one cartoon at a time by dividing soundtracks into more manageable sections and perfecting their parts. But playing them live from beginning to end, one after another, is grueling work undertaken at a breakneck pace. Still, Daugherty says, the musicians are always eager to take part.
And audiences eat it up like Taz gobbling Wild Turkey Surprise.
While the early popularity of Looney Tunes reflected the fact that classical music was part of the era’s vernacular, much more so than it is today, the combination of serious tunes and hilarious hijinks continues to thrill concertgoers of all ages.
Watching Bugs concoct a beautiful salad on Elmer Fudd’s bald head in perfect sync with the overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, it’s easy to understand why.
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.